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City Council expected to discuss bans on plastics Monday

A proposal to restrict single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and foam carryout food containers is expected to be heard by the City Council on Monday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

A proposal to restrict single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and foam carryout food containers is expected to be heard by the City Council on Monday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque’s City Council is expected to decide Monday on a proposed single-use plastics ban, but the conversation may not actually end there.

The Albuquerque Clean & Green Retail Ordinance would severely restrict the use of plastic bags, plastic straws and foam carryout food containers, but councilors say the measures may not take effect all at once.

The bill’s sponsors say they would consider breaking the decision into pieces, perhaps phasing the law so businesses have more time to comply with individual provisions, or perhaps taking action Monday on just one portion, such as plastic bags, and postponing a vote on the other components to allow further evaluation.

Councilor Pat Davis, who co-sponsored the legislation, said this week he thinks there is consensus that banning businesses from giving customers single-use plastic bags at the point of sale is something “we should do and can do.” But businesses have raised concerns about other provisions, which prohibit them from providing nonrecyclable carryout containers and restricts their distribution of nonrecyclable straws.

Businesses have argued that compliant food containers cost significantly more and that alternatives to plastic straws are difficult to source. On the other hand, Davis said, some people want an even more comprehensive ordinance that also bans plastic utensils.

Davis said those concerns may not be settled by Monday and expressed a willingness to extend discussions with the community.

“No matter what, I think the bottom line is we’ve said from the beginning we really want to get a plastic bag ban on the mayor’s desk for Earth Day (April 22), and I think we’re still pushing for that goal,” Davis said. “That gives people some certainty we’ll continue working on the rest of it and see where it goes.”

The ordinance – introduced in January by Davis and fellow Democrats Isaac Benton, Cynthia Borrego and Diane Gibson – was initially up for vote at the council’s Feb. 20 meeting, and more than 30 people came to speak for or against the bill.

But Councilor Don Harris cautioned the council then about moving too quickly. He pushed for a 60-day deferral, which the council approved 6-3, postponing action until April 15.

Harris also asked for an economic impact analysis of the legislation, which is not yet complete.

The city, which sometimes outsources such analyses, is handling this one in-house. Council Services director Stephanie Yara said Thursday she was working on the draft.

Sponsor wants to wait

Borrego said Thursday she would not want to vote on the bill as is if the analysis is not complete. She said she would feel comfortable voting on bags but allowing additional time to research the other aspects. Some restaurateurs are worried about being able to transition by the time the law would take effect Jan. 1, she said. She’s also heard concerns about the straw restrictions from the disabled community – though the law would require anyone who provides straws to keep a plastic straw supply on hand to provide upon customer request – and from those who fear recyclable containers will not hold up to chile-laced New Mexican food.

“I think we need to do it right. I think we need to do it to where one group doesn’t feel like they’ve been somehow disenfranchised by the city or by government and show in good faith that we’re working with all of the communities,” Borrego said Thursday, noting that she is currently in discussions with city staff about incentives for businesses to ensure compliance.

Many who spoke during the Feb. 20 council meeting urged the city to approve the ordinance, citing their concerns about the community’s environmental future. Supporters included several school-age children, including some whose comments at a meeting last year had inspired the councilors to introduce the legislation.

And supporters dominated the crowd at a March 31 town hall hosted by the bill’s sponsors.

“At the end of the day, for preventing pollution, and saving wildlife, protecting the planet, it’s going to cost us a little bit,” Davis told the crowd. “But we think consumers are ready to do this.”

Businesses want clarity

Business groups, however, have objected based on what they say is the financial burden of compliance. Some have also questioned if it makes sense to shift to recyclable food containers since food residue can contaminate otherwise recyclable materials so that they cannot be recycled. The city’s recycling program, for example, does not accept pizza boxes because of the grease.

“This ban is ahead of the marketplace; it’s ahead of our recycling program; it’s just ahead of its time,” Carol Wight of the New Mexico Restaurant Association said in a meeting with Journal editors this week. “We have a few more years until we get these things figured out.”

Benton said recyclability is ideal, but the ordinance is mostly meant to change what ends up in the waste stream. Recyclable food containers, he said, would at least biodegrade if they end up in a landfill or as litter.

“We’re better off if it’s not plastic,” he said.

Some business owners say they want more clarity. Kevin Callesen said he assumes the legislation would apply to his company, Canteen of Central New Mexico, which supplies thousands of lunches daily to charter schools, private schools and day care centers. He serves them on Styrofoam trays that the ordinance would not allow, and swapping for recyclable versions would cost more than 30 cents more per unit, he said.

“The whole bill is just so vague. The way we interpret it, then we would be on the hook for this big impact,” Callesen said, though he acknowledged he has not contacted the city to see if the law would apply to his business.

Davis’ policy analyst, Sean Moran, noted that the restrictions apply only to point-of-sale transactions and should not encompass an operation like Callesen’s.

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